When you get a large circle of mages together, trouble is never far away. The air bristles with their electric, enchanting auras, egos clash, great minds find themselves distracted and spangly-costumed women end up being sawn in half, in the literal rather than the entertaining way.
Of course, SpellForce Gold’s mages aren’t the rabbit-in-the-hat types, but the role-playing breed, a far more dangerous cauldron of squid. They just love to cause chaos with fireballs, lightning, summoned skeletal minions, acid arrows… so it’s no real surprise that when the land of Eo convened a circle of 13 wizards to guard its destiny, the power went to their pointy-hatted heads and in-fighting wrought a terrible destruction on the realm.
The plot basically boils down to saving the land from the evil forces of destruction unleashed by these foolish spell-casters. Step forward the player, who fills the shoes of the “rune warrior” who must stride forward and bravely do what has to be done. Luckily, as a rune warrior you’re immortal, which rather helps.
SpellForce is best thought of as an RTS (real-time strategy) with heavy RPG (role playing game) influences. There’s a full levelling system involved, with a good dose of customisation meaning that you can develop various character types (from healer, through necromancer to fighter/mage combo). Tons of loot can be gleaned throughout the game’s missions, with plenty of Diablo style inventory juggling, and there are loads of side quests to undertake.
All this happens within an RTS interface and framework. On many maps you’ll be expected to build a base (although not always), churn out an army and take on enemy settlements. Furthermore, flicking the V’s to the “There can be only one” school of immortality philosophy, other rune warriors can be summoned using rune stones you can purchase from merchants or find in chests, and these guys and gals effectively become members of your party who you can equip and fight with.
On paper this sounds good, and luckily in practice it avoids being a mish-mash and actually works very well. There are plenty of quests, spanning multiple maps at times, and the RPG element is so well fleshed out that it most certainly isn’t a gimmick. Obviously it’s somewhat superficial as RPG depth goes, but then, so was Diablo.
However, not everything is well in SpellForce’s lush, green meadows. The quality of the visuals certainly isn’t a matter for complaint, as they’re rather smartly detailed, but there is the occasional bout of frame rate jerkiness to contend with. The sound isn’t fault free either, with some of the most pants voiceovers we’ve ever heard cropping up in the cut scenes.
While the interface is generally sound and features a useful targeting system which helps pinpoint powerful foes in the midst of large battles, it does have annoying flaws. There aren’t any hot-keys for abilities, and while they’re present for grouping units there are only 6 slots instead of the conventional 10, all of which makes micro-management trickier than it should be.
There are various other minor irritations, such as units ignoring your orders, for example, and just standing still instead, or corpses you want to loot which just won’t allow themselves to be clicked on – it seems a rather temperamental game at times. Some more detailed spell descriptions wouldn’t have gone amiss either, as the manual doesn’t help here and the mouse-over hints are overly concise.
In spite of a clump of such minor flaws, SpellForce Gold is a very addictive and well worked combination of RTS and RPG. As the Gold edition, it contains both the fully patched original game and the expansion campaign, both of which are challenging and lengthy. For twenty quid, that’s a lot of gameplay hours.